Thursday, April 24, 2008

the pillar that told the trade - old shop house series

This shop at Purvis Street -

When ever I walk past this landmark shop along Purvis Street selling the Hainanese chinese rice, I would never fail to stop in front of the shop for a few moment, not so much hesitating as to whether to go for the chicken rice, for there are at least three other shops to choose from within this short stretch of road, but to take in the sight of the shop and to admire the charm of the pillars.

Yes, this shop was supposedly to be the originator of the Hainanese chicken rice recipe, and if not the first, it should be one of the top contending pioneers in this food business.

What then is so charming and worth a double take of the pillars – you may ask. Well, for beneath the Chinese characters – it tells of a different time and a different era - when crafting out one’s trade & name on the pillars used to be in vogue. For they reflected a facet of the history of the straits shop houses sinages that is mostly gone.

When was coffee, and the likes of Western tea referred to as – 洋茶 –yang cha - tea from across the ocean. And the offering of ice-cool frozen beer –雪藏啤酒 – lengzang pijiu -
- a sure sell that you would boldly display on your shop sinage. Was that not eons ago! Well, one can still find these terms crafted on the pillars of this coffee shop selling chicken rice – isn’t it a nugget of living history in our midst!

Character pillars - as I would call them here - used to be a ubiquitous sight along the main streets of the city state – especially in areas with a congregation of Chinese shop houses and in the Chinatown area.
Some of these shop houses continue to upkeep and maintain the character pillars – give a uniquely regional flavor and character to the city.

Top - Left: Shop in Temple Street selling kitchen ware – isn’t the pillar uniquely Singapore & with a character- almost! 声发私人有限公司.

Bottom - Right: South Bridge Road –
The shop selling the famous Ipoh rice noodles - 鸡肉沙河粉- chicken meat sar-ho- fun –– with a bold an meaty chara

Old shop houses with their character pillars –

L: Rochor Road 1993.May.03. Monday
三盛 - San Sheng – name of shop
米糖京果 - mi tang jing guo - rice, sugar, dried goods
罐头杂货 - guan tou za huo - can food, sundry

R.Beach Road – 1993.May.03
长和有限公司 - Chang He you xian gong xi - name of shop
专营建筑 – catering in building material
坭园轮船 - sand, ship
捕鱼用品- angling material

Top Left & Right: Beach Road 1993.May.03
丰源 - Feng Yuan - name of shop -
颜料网素 - yanliao wangsu – dye, net and ropes
铁器杂货 - tieqi zahuo – metal hardware

Bottom Left: North Bridge Road 1993.May.03
南昌利 - Nan Cang Li - name of shop – selling roast meat
承接 金猪 -chengjie jinzhu – take in orders for golden pig

Bottom Right : South Bridge Road 1993.May.03
大安发行 - Da An faxing – Da An Distributor
胶皮拉链 - jiaopi la lian - rubber sheet, zip (haberdashery)
These photographs were taken 15 odd years ago in 1993 – along Beach Road, Rochor Road, North and South Bridge Roads. I thought it uniquely Singapore, well almost - and went out snapping photographs of the pillars before they were all gone - inundated by the tide of time and biz. Except for the haberdashery shop near to Elgin Bridge along South Bridge Road, most of the other shops are gone.

The characters are formed from cement and painted over – the most commonly used color being red, back or grey. Some of the shops have the characters embellished with small pieces of mirror to literary give them a shine.

However, they have become a rarity now. Even if the newly renovated shop houses have them, it would be just paint work, and devoid of the boldly formed three dimension characters that exuded a sense of strength and style.

Another town another tale of another pillar -

It was the December 15 years ago in 1993 when I went back to my home town and went to Ipoh wanting to capture some of the character pillars in the town that tin built.

The center of Ipoh that straddles the Kinta River has practically a substantial part of he town from pre-war shop houses. I remember from my younger days growing up in the town, these character pillars as part of the five-foot-way townscape, and had found them endearing and charming – though bold and loud.

However I was surprised then to find these character pillars had been washed over in white! The shop houses no longer kept the bold characters on the pillars prominently painted – as part of the shop signage. The characters were painted over with white emulsion to mask out the words.

Character pillars – painted over with white emulsion paint -
A wine shop in Ipoh New Town - 新情天酒店 -
Photo taken : 26.Dec.1993

Ipoh Old town - 协兴茶冰室 - Hiap Heng coffee shop - A vintage coffee shop famous for its steam boat - esp the raw vinegered crab - 咸蟹 - ham hai - in Cantonese .
Photo taken: CNY Feb2005

More than curious on why the shop owners wanted to do that, I asked around and got to hear that the town municipality had imposed a new signage tax – and the character pillars was included in the ruling! With the new tax – the average shop owners would not want to pay for the added fee on advertisement.

Fast forward nearly twenty years hence - With a newState government after the March 8 election tsuami, perhaps the new new city municipality could take a leaf or two from the city state. Time and tide and the biz environment will help do the job of erasing out the characters from the pillars, and it does not take a taxing rule to do that. The character pillars will neither look cool nor will they be a draw for business, if they are not well maintained either.

So much for the pillar and its tale ..

A landmark character pillar in Ipoh Old Town –永光钟镖 – Wing Kong Watch Maker. This shop should be more than 50 years old and much more. A vintage watch shop that sold branded watches.
The characeter pillar has withstood time, tide and tax!
Photo taken: CNY Feb2005


a) Golden pig – 金猪

烧猪 – shao zhu- will never be the term to use for shops that take order for roast pig, but always –金猪 - jin zhu – meaning golden pig. It is auspicious sounding - jin zhu - and makes good biz sense – by virtue of its golden brown skin when roasted.

Ordering a whole roasted pig is a must in many of the traditional Chinese celebrations and festivals in Singapore. On such event is the traditional Chinese wedding.

On wedding day, the bridegroom & entourage, among other gifts must bring along a golden pig - of an auspicious weight - to the bride’s house . The bride’s family will keep the juiciest portion of the piggy – usually the whole of the mid section together with the pair of front trotters - and return the rest of the head, tail and hind leg to the groom’s family.

Why the pair of front legs- you may ask? Possibly it came from the Cantonese – the ethnic group that speaks the Cantonese dialect - 广东话 – Guangdong hua.

For - 猪手 – g-sow – in Cantonese sounds like - 就手 – jiu-sow ( in Cantonese pronunciation)
Where – g-sow – literary means the pig’s hand – it is taken to mean the pair of front trotters. And - jiu- sow- meaning coming your hands way. Thus it connotes that - whatever one does will be smooth sailing and comes one way.

Combining with the term - 横财- wang choi – i.e the horizontal luck - 横财就手 – wang choi jiu sow – literary means that luck is coming your way readily. However in Mandarin – Standard Chinese – 普通话- Putonghua , - 猪手 is pronunced as - zhu shou – whihc sounds the same as- 住手- zhu shou - meaning- to STOP!

Thus with a new generation of Singaporeans growing up speaking only Mandarin - and no longer their dialect – they will not know how to keep the pair of front trotters during their wedding- & letting loose thier their lady luck!

So much for the tale of the golden pig …

Sunday, April 13, 2008

beneath the red banner - in chinatown

Date : 12 April 2008 / Saturday
Time : 8:30pm
Place : Tong Heng Pastry Shop
Location : Junction of South Bridge Road and Ann Siang Road

An early Saturday evening and decided to go downtown for dinner and to find a cozy corner to continue with the novel.

Took bus No 23 from Tampines and at Jalan Besar changed to bus No 147 - which passes by Chinatown – 牛车水。 About 40 minutes later, alighted at Chinatown Point, and cut across the complex to the Hong Lim Food Center -芳林熟食中心- a place where one is still able to find a good variety of reasonably priced delicious hawker food , despite the climbing food prices and the hiking in the price of many of the dishes.

Ordered a plate of plain white boiled chicken, together with a side dish of boiled cai xin - 菜心- for a healthy and balanced diet with some greens. All in with a bowl of soup thrown in, the meal cost $4.00 - with the chicken rice at $3:00 and the plate of vegetable at $1.00. It’s more that what I would normally spend daily for dinner on weekdays – at most at $3:00 or so. Anyway it was a weekend evening and in the downtown area - I thought I should deserve to give myself a treat! I thought a similar in Tokyo downtown - Shitamachi - 下町 - that is an economical meal in places such as Ueno -上野 - or Asakusa - 浅草– would easily have put you back by S$9 to $10.

Singapore is still a relatively ‘cheap city’ – when it comes to food – albeit everyday local food. And with the stronger Singapore dollar that was announced by the government two days ago hopefully it would help to reign in the unreasonable price hike at the food centers.

After dinner, took a stroll down towards Chinatown proper -牛车水 – to the vicinity of Temple, Pagoda, Smith, Sago Streets. And looking for a corner to continue with my reading – I headed for Tong Heng Pastry Shop - 东兴饼家- at South Bridge Road.

Beneath the Red Banner - 正红旗下 

The English edition of this un-finished novel by Lao She- 老舍 - was translated by Don J Cohn. I bought this book nearly twenty years ago at the Shanghai Book Store -上海书局 - when I first came to Singapore.

Why are you reading this book again? – you may ask.

We’ll, perhaps it was the author - Lao She - and the exhibition of paintings by Xu Beihong -徐悲鸿 - which started at the Singapore Art Museum last week and will run thro July – that instigated me to re-read the novel, after a lapse of nearly two decades! 

Many of the English educated local would be proud to quote Somerset Maugham & point to the visitors where he had stayed - in Raffles Hotel travelling to Singapore. Somerset had one of his novels written on this island & with the colonial outpost as the backdrop. However, I wonder how many of them would have heard and knew of Lao She.

Lao She was in Singapore in the 1920/s while on his way to England to teach - in the School of Oriental Studies. On his way back to China he again dropped in at this port city.

During his six months or so stay here, he taught in one of the Chinese medium schools to earn some keep, and in between wrote a children’s tale entitled - 小坡的故事 - The Story of Xiao Po. Xiao Po – or Little Po – is a pun on Singapore – 新加坡 – Xin Jia Po – in Chinese pinyin. It’s about the story of a little boy growing up on this tropical island near the equator, with scenes taken from Chinatown.

Perhaps Lao She was sitting in one of these pastries or dim sum tea shop one lazy Saturday evening when he conceived of Xiao Po for his short story. Perhaps there should be makers and plaque to identify the sites.

Beneath the Red banner– is an uncompleted auto-biography of the author during the last days of the Qing Dynasty and the early Republican years when the author was growing up in Beijing. It’s about the everyday life in the Northern Capital - 北京 and the demise of the Manchu family system and their decadent lifestyle, after 200 odd years of ruling China.

Instead of just marveling at the Olympic edifices and 21st century architectural marvel of Beijing, for those of you who wants to have a feel of the daily life in the Old Northern Capital, Lao She’s novels are a must read.

In them he livelily resurrected many of the side lanes - hutong/s -胡同 - & tea houses -cha guan - 茶馆 - that are almost obliterated by the hammer balls. In them he wrote about the vicissitudes of life of the down trodden Beijing - lao bai xing – 老百姓 – the hundred surnames i.e the commoners.

Such literary masters of modern China - Lao She, You Dafu 郁达夫, and master artists such as – Xu Bei Hong - had their sojourn to the South Seas – the Nanyang –南洋-in the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century China.

Singapore as the hub of the South-Eash Asia was a natural port of call on the way to and from Eurpoe. As an oasis of of relative calm under the British colonial rule, it was an attraction to the travellers, as well as the migrants escaping the war and turmoil in the mainland.

Fast forward to the 21st Century – a new wave of migrants coming from China, as well as India – to work and study in Singapore in a globalised world. Who then will be the Lao She/s Bei Hong/s in their midst? With Beijing & Shanghai booming and in relative peace after a nearly 150 years of turbulence, the tide is turning. Will the backwaters of Nanyang still be an attraction to these talents?

Post script:

1. Tong Heng Pastry Shop

东兴饼家 - Dong Xing bing jia

桥南路 – 安祥路 交叉路口旁老店铺 -

I’ll always have a craving for pastries and never fail to stop by at this shop where ever I pass by to have a piece or two of the traditional Chinese style cakes– made Cantonese style.

It’s one of the - lao zhi hao - 老字号 - old establishment - in Chinatown. As part of the traditional Chinese wedding practice of sending boxes of biscuits to the bride’s family a fortnight or so before the wedding day – as part of the dowry and also as an announcement of the impending marriage of the new couple - many a family would order their biscuits from this shop.

The egg tart, on of my favourites - latest listed price is $1.30 per piece, which used to be $0.90, not so long ago- maybe a year of more or so ago. An increase of 44%!

Well, anyway at less than Y100 - Japanese yen, it’s a steal. It would easily be priced above $5.00 a piece - in Tokyo/Ueno and in a shop of similar stature and pedigree. OOPS – I’m in Sgp and earning S$ and not in Japan with JY!

2) Beneath the Red Banner -

正红旗下 - Zheng hong q ixia
老舍 - Lao She
熊猫丛书 – Xiongmao congshu - Panda Books
中国文学 -杂志出版社 - Zhongguo wenxue zhazi chubanshe

Published by – Chinese Literature
Distributed by – China Publication

“Beneath the Red Banner by Lao She, one of modern China’s best loved writers is an autobiographical novel published after his death. The author of Camel Xiangzi (Rickshaw Boy) and the drama Teahouse – Lao She died in 1966, leaving Beneath the Red Banner unfinished. It is an account of life in Beijing at the turn of the century and is told with great wit and warmth, candor and sympathy”.

Preface – from the Panda Books – 1982 edition :

Lao She, whose real nam was Shu Qingchu, was a Manchu born in Beijing in 1899. He last his father early, but in spite of his family’s poverty managed to graduge from a normal college in 1917, after which he taught for some years and started writing.

In 1924 he went to England to teach in the School of Oriental Studies. There he worte several novels. On his return to China, he taught in universities, and among his many writings was his masterpiece Camel Xiangzi, a novel about the tragedy of a rickshaw puller in the cruel old society. After the outbreak of the anti-Japanese war, Lao She went to Chongqing and organized writers and artists to support the resistance. Then, in 1946, he went to America to lecture and write.

On his return to China in 1949 he became vice-chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Chinese Writers’ Association, serving besides in many posts. He wrote twenty three plays and many songs and ballads in praise of New China. His Teahouse is the first Chinese play to have been staged and acclaimed abroad. A prolific, versatile and realist writer, Lao She made an immense contribution to China’s new literature. Unfortunately, in 1966, he was hounded to death by the ‘gang of four’ .

Lao She – the She pronounced as in as Sher – in Sherwood – but with a short trucked sound. It’s written in pinyin – 拼音 – Chinese pronunciation.

One of the earlier books published in English by China after the end of the Cultural Revolution and heeding Deng Xiaopeng’s call - for Reform and Opening up to the outside world – 改革开放 – 30 years ago in 1978.

Website on Lao She Memorial Hall in Beijing – in Chinese though

3) Singapore Art Museum - SAM

4) Sign of the time -- the inflationary menu price

I wonder if the price hike at food centers is altered with any sound arithmetic computation, or is it due to sheer group pressure. The price change could go up - for a dish of $2.00 to $2.20 to $2.50 with a stroke of a tape, - an increase of 10% to 25% overnight – which is more that the jump in oil price.

The S$ to USD exchange rate is at a historic high of close to S$1.36 to USD$1.00. It’s to help ease the inflation. They said that it’s cheap to travel to the US now, but what mood to travel with food and living cost rising by the day.